Read The Champion Online

Authors: Elizabeth Chadwick

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

The Champion (3 page)

BOOK: The Champion
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Clemence gave a reproving cluck. Her daughter set about feeding pottage to the invalid, whose hands were too shaky to manage a spoon for himself.

As Alexander consumed the hot food, his colour improved and the chills started to subside. ‘Thank you,’ he said weakly to the girl. ‘The last food I ate was three days ago, and that was no more than mouldy bread and burned gruel.’

‘What makes you think you’ll eat any differently here?’ Hervi snorted, and was immediately castigated by the mother, her blue eyes fierce.

‘God save us, Hervi de Montroi, I hope that neither of us is ever thrown on your charity. He is your own brother. Don’t you care?’

‘Of course I care!’ cried Hervi, and commenced tearing at his hair once more. ‘That’s why I don’t want him. He’s run away from taking the tonsure. What earthly use is he going to be following the tourneys? How in God’s name am I going to support him?’

Clemence de Cerizay rounded on Hervi with a tongue as sharp as a war sword. ‘If you had silver to waste on a gallon of cider and a slut like that Alys, then you have enough to keep the lad at least until he is well enough to send on to something better,’ she said forcefully.

‘I didn’t ask for him to come seeking me like a stray pup.’

‘No, but he is here, and he is your responsibility.’

On the pallet, the invalid closed his eyes. The girl pressed her palm to his forehead. ‘Mama, he’s fallen asleep,’ she said, leaning over him.

Her words filtered to Alexander through a haze thicker than the mizzle outside. The scents of dried lavender and woodsmoke drifted wraithlike through his awareness.

Another hand, rougher-skinned than the first, touched his brow and then the side of his neck. ‘A mite feverish,’ Clemence said. ‘Keep him covered.’

The shield was removed from behind his back and he was eased down on to the straw pallet. Blankets were piled over him and their greasy, woollen smell filled his nostrils. Alexander kept his lids shut and they talked over him, as if he were not there. He learned nothing from their discussion that he did not already know – he had lice and he stank. The sores on his wrists were caused by the abrasion of cords; he had run away from the ordered life of Cranwell Priory, and in its place had chosen the dangers of the open road.

Heat prickled behind his lids and leaked through his lashes. He prayed for oblivion, but not as the monks had taught him to pray.

He dreamed that he was back at Cranwell, descending the dark dorter stairs to matins in the chapel. Cold stone beneath his feet, his breath a white mist in the midnight deep. Another cowled figure brushed against him. Fingers groped at his genitals and whispered an obscenity in his ear. In blind panic he struck out, landing a solid blow in the concealed softness of the other’s eye socket.

There was a cry, the scuffle of feet struggling for balance, and then the bump, bump of a body tumbling down the stairs. His assailant’s descent into what would have been serious injury or death was intercepted by two other novices further down the dark stairway.

In the flickering glimmer from a wax taper, Alexander found himself looking into the battered, vindictive features of Brother Alkmund, the sub-prior, and knew that his doom was sealed. He tried to run, but he was trapped on the stairs and seized. They twisted his arms behind his back and bound his wrists with rawhide cords. Then they cast him into the dank cells beneath the priory latrines, there to await his punishment.

He stood accused of the attempted murder of the sub-prior, and he knew that no one would believe that he had struck out in self-defence. He possessed a reputation that would preclude all mercy. Past crimes included stealing and drinking the infirmarian’s store of medicinal ginevra, writing secular love poems in the scriptorium and singing them in the cloisters. Then there had been two attempts to escape, and gross insubordination to the rule when captured, resulting in a severe scourging. The list damned him out of hand. They had shown him lenience before. The raised pink and white welts on his back were a testament to how lenient they could be.

The fetid, musty smell of damp stone invaded his nostrils. He felt as if he had been buried alive. Faces leered at him – skulls clothed in cowls. Skeletons clattered out of the walls and performed the dance of death before his eyes, urging him to caper with them. In blind terror he ran towards the door, but his escape was barred by Brother Alkmund, a hoop of keys taunting on his forefinger.

Alexander felt bony arms close around him from behind and draw him towards the oozing prison wall. He screamed and resisted, striving to free his wrists of the cords while they bit deeper and deeper.

‘Ah, Christ,’ swore one of the skeletons irritably. ‘How am I supposed to sleep with you making so much noise?’ It shook him by the shoulder, and its foul breath filled his face, making him gag.

‘Alex, you purblind fool, it’s a dream, only a dream!’ The shaking grew more agitated. One by one the skeletons rattled into the wall and vanished, dragging Brother Alkmund in their wake. On a huge gulp of air, Alexander surfaced from the nightmare like a swimmer too long underwater.

In the light from a tallow cresset lamp, Hervi’s face loomed anxiously over his. Alexander felt the fierce pain of fully fleshed fingers digging into his shoulder.

‘God’s eyes!’ Hervi swore. ‘You were screaming fit to rouse the dead!’ There was fear in his voice and his eye whites gleamed.

Alexander laughed weakly at his brother’s choice of words, but there was little humour in the sound. Sweat-drenched, he lay back against the lumpy bracken pillow. ‘You’re hurting me,’ he protested.

The fingers relaxed their pressure. A moment later the rim of a goblet was rested on his lips. Remembering the ginevra he hesitated, but when he realised that the liquid was nothing more threatening than cool, watered wine, he took a long, grateful drink.

‘Do you want me to leave the light?’ Hervi asked awkwardly.

‘It doesn’t matter … won’t make any difference.’

‘Then I’ll leave it.’

Alexander turned his head and saw that his brother had assembled a makeshift pallet beside the one that should rightfully be his. ‘I didn’t mean to wake you,’ he apologised.

‘You could have fooled me.’ Hervi lay down again, thumped the rolled-up tunic that was serving as his pillow, and hunched his cloak around his shoulders.

For a while Alexander stared at the canvas roof of the tent, watching the flicker of lamp shadows. Beside him, Hervi snored. The sound, the surroundings, despite their squalor, were oddly comforting. Alexander’s eyelids drooped, and before long, he was deep in an exhausted slumber.

C
HAPTER
2

 

It was well beyond noon of the following day when Alexander woke up. At first he did not know where he was and it took him a while to gather his sleep-scattered wits. His head felt muzzy and his limbs were weak. He held one hand up in front of his face. The fingers trembled, but he could control them, and although his bones felt hollow, the chills were gone.

Tentatively he sat up and gazed around his brother’s tent. It was compact enough to be borne by a sturdy pack horse when dismantled, and its size was made even smaller by Hervi’s untidiness. Of Hervi himself there was no sign. The crumbs of a finished meal were strewn on a crude trestle near the tent flap, and Hervi’s jousting helm sat among the debris together with a sheathed long dagger. On the floor beside the pallet was a stone jug of wine, a beaker of milk, and a shallow wooden bowl containing a chunk of bread and two slightly wizened apples.

His appetite surged fiercely, but there was an underlying sensation of nausea that warned Alexander to be moderate. He drank the milk, ate half the bread and one apple, and leaving the rest for later, gingerly tested the ability of his legs to support him. He wobbled like a newborn lamb, but at least remained upright. His bladder twinged and he glanced around without success. Amongst all the flotsam of Hervi’s life, there did not appear to be a piss-flask.

Alexander went to the tent flap and pulled aside the mildew-stained canvas. It had ceased raining and a smoky-white sun was poking through the bank of clouds somewhere west of noon. He had been in no condition to take notice of the camp last night, but he was sure that it had increased in size. There seemed to be more tents now, larger and finer, some with coloured stripes. There were carts and wains, there was noise and bustle, and he did not think it was due to the drier weather enticing people from their shelters.

The hucksters were out in force, the pie-sellers, women with trinkets and lucky sprigs, a man with two trained apes on slender chains. Whores, beggars, a chirurgeon barber with his tooth-puller’s pincers on a cord around his neck. A monk walked into view and Alexander took an involuntary back-step, a cold fist squeezing his entrails. The cleric’s tonsure needed shaving and his habit was old and filthy. The walk was in fact more of a lurch. Disquieted, but not surprised, Alexander realised that the man was drunk.

Once the monk had blundered from sight, Alexander felt safe to move, but not out into the swarm of activity; his balance was not steady enough for that. Instead he made his way slowly around to the back of the tent which faced open grassland.

Two bay pack ponies were tethered beside a nondescript gelding. Alexander reasoned that they must belong to Hervi, for grazing with them was his own emaciated black horse. He waded further into the meadow, glanced round and relieved his bladder. Then he approached his mount. The stallion was too busy devouring the lush spring grass to pay him much attention. Alexander ran his hand over the prominent ridges of the ribs beneath the harsh, dull hide, and grimaced to himself.

Behind him, hooves thudded on the soft ground and he turned to see Hervi draw rein and dismount in one fluid movement from a handsome golden-dun destrier. In contrast to yesterday’s image of a degenerate sot, Hervi was groomed to perfection, his mail shirt glittering beneath a shin-length split surcoat of blue linen, embossed in yellow thread with the de Montroi family device of three spearheads. He wore a richly tooled sword belt from which hung his scabbard, and the hand not controlling the destrier rested confidently on the braided leather sword hilt. Hazel eyes narrowed, fair hair windblown and bright, this was Hervi the warrior knight, and Alexander could only gape in astonishment and not a little disbelief at the transformation.

‘Awake at last,’ Hervi said curtly. ‘You’ve missed most of the day.’ Removing his hand from his sword, he tethered the stallion to a wooden stake knocked in the ground and commenced unsaddling him.

‘You should have woken me.’

‘I tried.’ Hervi flashed him a wry glance: ‘I broke my fast; Arnaud de Cerizay helped me to don my armour and we had a detailed conversation within three feet of your bed, and you did not so much as stir … Easy, lad, steady.’ He smoothed the dun’s sulky golden hide for a moment before unbuckling the cinches on the double girth. ‘I even touched the beat in your throat before I left to make sure you were still alive.’

Alexander approached the horse. It threw up its head and its hooves danced a drumbeat on the soft meadow soil. Hervi grabbed the bridle and frowned a warning at his brother. ‘He’s trained to fight. Unless he’s familiar with your scent, he’ll savage you.’ A grim smile curved Hervi’s lips. ‘Needless to say, he’s never been taken as a prize in any tourney. No one wants him. Once you are well, I’ll give you the grooming detail so you can become accustomed to each other.’

‘Then you’re letting me stay?’

‘Do I have a choice?’ Hervi said irritably. Relaxing his grip on the bridle, he returned to unsaddling the horse and cast a ferocious look from beneath his brows. ‘But you will work for your bread, or there won’t be any.’

Alexander swallowed the sudden lump of emotion in his throat. ‘Thank you, Hervi,’ he said huskily. ‘I promise I won’t be a burden to you.’

‘Did they not teach you at the priory never to make vows you could not keep?’

Alexander’s face twisted with revulsion. ‘They taught me nothing but fear and hatred.’

Hervi deposited the saddle on the ground. His expression was thoughtful as he unhitched his sword belt and removed the gorgeous surcoat. ‘Have you strength enough to help me take this thing off?’ He gestured at the mail shirt.

Giving the dun a wide berth, Alexander came to his brother. Hervi crouched over, arms extended, and like a snake shedding its skin, began to wriggle out of the heavy garment. Alexander laid hold of the sleeves, then the body, and helped pull it over his head.

Consisting of thousand upon thousand of individually riveted iron links, the mail shirt was an item of great value, coveted by every fighting man. Only the rich and the fortunate could afford one. Alexander knew that this particular hauberk had once belonged to their father before being presented to Hervi as the means by which, as the fifth son, he was to make his way in the world. Alexander wondered what it would feel like to bear such weight, to fight in it.

Red-faced, panting slightly, Hervi straightened and took the precious garment before Alexander dropped it. As he rolled it into a cylindrical bundle, he glanced at the young man. ‘Who is Brother Alkmund?’

Alexander went cold. ‘No one, a monk.’ His belly churned. ‘Why do you ask?’

Hervi shrugged. ‘You were talking in your sleep.’

‘What did I say?’

‘God knows, half of it was in Latin. You were reciting the Credo, but more as if you were defying someone than in duty to God. And you kept gibbering about skeletons coming out of the walls.’ Hervi’s eyebrows rose and three creases pleated his forehead. ‘You yelled at this Brother Alkmund that you wished you had killed him when you knocked him down the stairs.’

Alexander shuddered. ‘He’s the sub-prior at Cranwell.’

‘And?’ Hervi prompted.

‘And he lusts after novice monks,’ Alexander said woodenly.

There was a telling silence. Hervi fetched a ragged square of linen torn from an old shirt and began to rub the horse down. ‘Could you not have reported him to the prior?’ he asked at length.

BOOK: The Champion
11.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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